A Whirlwind Visit to East Africa Leads to Partnership and Research Grant

Selling and recharging pedal-powered lights provides clean energy and income for this community.
Selling and recharging pedal-powered lights provides clean energy and income for this community.

In February, Pritpal Singh, PhD, professor and chair, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, spent 70 hours traveling for a two-day visit to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Burundi, a landlocked country in East Africa. The trip stemmed from a conversation Dr. Singh had with Christopher Fabian, Senior Advisor on Innovation, UNICEF New York, whom he met at the 2014 International Humanitarian Technology Conference. Fabian described the impressive work performed in UNICEF Burundi’s Innovation Lab, and explained how progress is limited by a lack of electricity—which exists in only 3 percent of the country. Solar energy is believed to be the answer to rural electrification, but external partners are needed to make that happen. With his expertise in renewable energy, Dr. Singh saw an opportunity to involve himself and students in Villanova’s College of Engineering in meeting the needs of those in Burundi, one of the five poorest countries in the world.

Dr. Singh’s visit to Burundi was hosted by Innovation Lab director Mima Stojanovic who introduced him to community members, teachers, students and UNICEF staff and volunteers. He spoke with members of the Nawe Nuze group, which had formed a Village Savings and Loan Association to support its members and vulnerable children in the community. In a display of entrepreneurial spirit, the group purchased a well-designed and rugged $275 pedal-powered charging unit on which five lights can be charged with 20 minutes of pedaling. The group sells and recharges the lights to generate income while providing households with clean energy. The investment in the pedal-powered light charging unit can be recouped in only four months. One of the women Dr. Singh met demonstrated using the light as a head lamp by which she cooks. Prior to having the light, she often had difficulty seeing the food she was eating.  

The Digital Drum consisting of three computer screens mounted to the wall in the day center.
The Digital Drum consisting of three computer screens mounted to the wall in the day center.


Though the pedal-powered charging unit would seem to offer a solution to the country’s lack of electricity, Dr. Singh learned that the abject poverty of those living in the mountainous region means people rarely have enough to eat. Burning calories to pedal power lights, therefore, is not a good option. He and his students will be working with the UNICEF Burundi team to find even better, cheaper, and sustainable technologies for providing clean energy sources to communities and to develop business models that can generate income at the same time.

Dr. Singh also stopped by a local public school and a day center run by an NGO. The day center is one of the first places in the country where UNICEF installed the Digital Drum—a computer kiosk powered by solar energy—yet there is no electricity for lights. As one student told him, “It’s hard to see the blackboard when it starts getting dark in the afternoon.” 

UNICEF’s priority: The children.
UNICEF’s priority: The children.

 

The last day of his visit was spent at UNICEF Burundi where Dr. Singh spoke with colleagues working in Education, Social Policy, Child Protection, and Health and Nutrition. Access to energy is a pervasive need identified by each of them in their programs. The office is starting various initiatives that use cell phones to collect information from communities and engage in dialogue with them, but due to limited access to electricity, there are few options to charge these units.

Since returning, Dr. Singh has put in motion his plans for involving Villanova Engineering in addressing Burundi’s energy-related needs. Within a week of returning home, he gathered together a group of students, who, under his guidance, wrote a project proposal titled “Open Source Cell Phone & Light Chargers for Burundi.” In mid-March, they learned that the project was approved for funding through the inaugural Villanova Summer Innovation Incubator (VSII) program, which provides two-month, campus-based accelerator grants to competitively selected multidisciplinary engineering student teams. Students are awarded stipends, a project budget and free room and board to build prototypes of their own design to fulfill a societal or technological need of their choosing. The Harris Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Harris Corporation, provided the College with a pilot grant to launch the VSII Program.

In addition to the project itself, by spring 2016, Dr. Singh plans to offer an engineering course in which students will learn about Burundi’s culture, challenges, technological needs and UNICEF’s long-range goals for the country. He hopes to also provide a Villanova intern for the Innovation Lab.

Finally, a cooperation agreement between Villanova University and UNICEF Burundi is in the works. “This is one of the most inspiring international service organizations I have had the pleasure to work with,” says Dr. Singh. “I am so impressed by the many talented individuals I met from around the world who have committed themselves to the challenging needs of this country. We at Villanova will be honored to join them in their efforts.”